We all came into this year with some sense of optimism, as we all do when we’ve had a few weeks break, but by measuring all of the things that 2020 has thrown at us, it has been one of the more challenging years we’ve been through over the past 15 years.
We’ve had to ensure some of the worst bushfires any of us have seen in our life. Weeks of haze and smog throughout our cities and across the country. Flying back from Brisbane this time last year, I recalled watching the patches of fire and smoke over northern NSW and asking myself — what are these fires? What’s going on up here, is it a dry season? Is this usual? Surely this is a rare occurrence… then I experienced this first hand in Melbourne, then across the news, then in articles sent from friends around the world, in the New York Times, in the LA Times. We’d made the news headlines around the world, for all of the wrong reasons.
I think regardless of how many years we all have believed and seen the science of climate change, 2020 and those Bushfires will be the moment when we all experienced it first hand, in our homes, down our streets, in our lungs. Global warming is in our backyard now and there’s no looking back.
By March, as we were all still trying to settle back into our rhythm, COVID hit. As it happened, it took some time for it to reach us and in Melbourne, we were in fact the first part of the country to experience COVID. A man from Wuhan flew to Melbourne from Guangdong on the 19th of January and although cases spread quicker in Sydney initially, this initial touchpoint proved to be somewhat prescient.
Looking back at the pace of those events and how suddenly it all came, I think we can all confidently say that each and every one of us was making it up as it came: police, educators, leaders, Dan Andrews and us. Some of those early questions of, “Should we put hand sanitizer at the front door and can we force people to use it?” seem like the equivalent of debating whether to use a mop or a t-towel to clean up a glass of spilt water on the titanic.
It came swift and none of us knew what the future would look like. I look back and I’m grateful that we were able to go early into remote working. Those first few days, where we at first planned a “drill”, which then turned into full working from home, I think proved to be crucial for us, both administratively and psychologically. Back then, there were whole groups of the population that just didn’t see the need to isolate. Those early days allowed us all to prepare, to figure out Zoom and Miro and to move our practice online for our clients and the communities we served.
Regrettably during that time, after seeing the impact of the pandemic start to sweep over, we found ourselves in a situation where we had to make changes to our operations in order to prepare us for a very unknown future. We said goodbye to Kate, Beth, Max and Kanika, which was also extremely difficult emotionally for all of those involved. The rest of us took pay cuts or had our hours reduced or a combination of both, which forced hard conversations, individual sacrifices and also engendered a sense of unease, uncertainty and distress. I still, to this day, admire and am grateful for the way in which we as a company, all of us, took this on and carried ourselves through this period. I also want to make an important note and thank you here to the Federal Government. The introduction of the JobKeeper program and our subsequent qualification for the program allowed us, and many other businesses, to move forward beyond July with more certainty and safety. You often hear the phrase, “What has the Government done for me lately?” This year it saved thousands of jobs. It saved lives. And it allowed us to maintain the relatively same structure and ambitions we had coming into 2020.
The second lockdown, well, what can I say. It was long, hard, cruel and soul-destroying. It eroded our mental health and I think many of us will speak about this period for years to come and many people, including other Australians, will not fully understand the experience that we all went through.
Despite it all, this year we have produced some of our best work and have made great strides in our practice, process and culture. A few years ago we embarked on a 10 year journey to make justice more accessible and this year we saw us make some good headway in this through the release of products to the world. We commenced the year with the release of YourCase as a proof of concept to help victim-survivors of family violence. In June together with the Legal Services Commission of South Australia, we launched amica, a way for couples to separate online, with the greater aim of reducing the surging case demand of the Federal Court. amica was awarded the grand prize of Best Government and Public Sector Solution at the National iAwards 2020 and is truly an embodiment of the possibilities that Portable has as a company, when it comes to imagination, influence and impact.
By July, we had released Grants Tracker for Legal Aid NSW to help people navigate legal aid grants and a Guided Pathway for low-level traffic infringements. In addition to this, our technical analysis of audio visual technology currently used in the South Australia criminal justice system helped secure $15m in funding to drive change across the state.
We then conducted research into the experiences of Koori people using VCAT’s services, and provided insights and recommendations that are driving meaningful change within that organisation. Our work with the VCAT Koori Engagement Team was run in a particularly considerate, safe and ethical approach to conducting that research and representing the views of First Nations people in the community.
In education, we provided the independent Papua New Guinean school system with a roadmap to guide the school administration to take advantage of the roll-out of a new submarine broadband cable from Australia, enabling new levels of digital engagement.
End of Life
We commenced work with North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network on Lately, a platform to help guide people towards end of life services: something missing from the market, until now. We also launched a “Meet Akira” for Meaningful Ageing Australia—an interactive educational experience to help aged care staff find greater meaning in their work as carers, and create greater meaning for the people they care for.
Our work in mental health has been of equal impact. We were able to release new products for headspace, including the MOST+ platform, connecting headspace website users to Orygen's Enhanced Moderated Online Social Therapy platform. But not only that, we were able to upgrade the headspace content management system so the website performs better for the increased number of visitors seeking resources about mental health. Our on-going work with Orygen through the #chatsafe campaign continued, seeing us work with over 50 students from RMIT in a series of workshops, and we supported Orygen to launch the #chatsafe guidelines to 10 countries. More recently our work with Orygen on #chatsafe has been validated with a continuation of the program in 2021.
Government & Support
Meanwhile, with all of this work, we’ve continued to support and drive change within government through a range of design and technology services. We continue to run and operate the PPQ and PAEQ technology, which provides background operations for the machinations of government. Our work with a multitude of government departments such as the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Small Business Victoria, the NSW Department of Primary Industry, Creative Victoria, Commonwealth Ombudsman has built capability and allowed efficiencies to make our public service operate better. We’ve taken a renewed focus on getting support right in the business, with a new resourcing structure and we’re experiencing success with our existing and new clients.
Partnerships, collaboration and the optimistic exchange of learning continue to drive us forward. In October, we welcomed Chris, Claire, Nick, Dave and Anthony as part of our acquisition of inoutput. Through this, we’re now providing backbone digital services to the public transport network across Victoria through Yarra Trams, whilst deepening our relationship with headspace through hAPI. A new partnership earlier in the year with LOTE Agency has allowed us to give the voice of marginalized communities to our products, while our recent partnering with a range of new services providers, which we will be further announced in the new year, has allowed us to continue to strengthen our knowledge and capability.
We have extended out into the world
We continue to grow as a thought leader in research, design and technology. In April, we launched our Co-Design for Purpose report. From our analysis of the impact of the Federal Budget on tech and design to our guide to tackling remote co-design, we’ve been able to give back to our community with knowledge and new practice. Our talk with MIT professor Catherine D’Ignazio has helped our local community to think about how data can shape future conversations around feminism and accessibility, and our discussions surrounding death, higher education, digital transformation, cultural institutions and the psychology of work have further connected our unique understanding of problems with the wider world. Our new website, one of the great collaborative success stories of 2020 has made all of this possible along with our new brand, which has lifted us to a level of quality I believe all of us are proud to be part of.
Finally, something to look forward to
As 2020 closes, the coming year demands us to be optimistic about the role we play in the world, guided by our mission and our vision for a world that bridges a range of gaps in experience of services for the communities and people we serve. Systemic problems, which were already challenged prior to the pandemic are painfully coming into the foreground. Aged care, end of life, mental health, family violence and disability services: all these areas required a mixture of renewed focus and effort, as well as new ways of thinking. Meanwhile, as we’ve seen big tech grow to play a more powerful role in our politics and our daily lives, the need for mission-based organizations to question and push back against the blank cheque ethics of technology of the tech titans is clearer than it has even been.
The coming decade will draw into sharp focus the question, can technology actually be used as a force for good? We at Portable are clear in our purpose to say yes it can, and we are preparing ourselves with the right capability to shape the debate with our partners and the community.